PREVIEW - CALIFORNIA v USC
Earlier this week I encouraged Cal fans to channel 1975
- a year when a Cal team full of offensive stars whacked the favored Trojans 28-14.
I've since changed my mind. Better that you remember 2004. You will recall the chess match - Tedford wanted to keep the ball away from Leinart and Bush. Carroll was content to give up the short passing game, as long as SC prevented long gains.
Both teams were effective in their respective strategies. Cal controlled the ball for 37:11 with a pinpoint short passing game and 116 yards from J.J. Arrington. At one point Aaron Rodgers completed 23 straight passes. SC used the goal line as a 12th defender, and Cal's longest pass play was only twenty yards.
Still, the game was Cal's to win. And they lost.
They lost because SC made just enough big plays to win. Their average starting position was the Cal 49 yard line. Three Trojan fumble recoveries resulted in two field goals - the eventual margin of victory. Reggie Bush had a big kick return (that ultimately led to nothing, as Leinart threw a pick). Steve Smith had a 45-yard reception that set up a Kalil field goal. Another 31-yard pass to Smith set up the 16-yard score to Jarrett for the winning margin.
Cal's strategy came close, but it ultimately fell short. And the same will be true of USC on Saturday night.
For the first time since 1991, Cal has more playmakers than SC. Carroll knows this, and will want to play keep-away - establish the ball-control passing game, mix in the run with Washington and maybe Gable. Keep the ball away from Longshore, Jackson and Lynch.
Can this work? You bet it can. It's exactly what I would do if I woke up in Pete Carroll's shoes tomorrow. Slant, out, screen - bait Cal's corners into press cover and then hit the tight end or try to pop a deep pass. Booty's just the QB for such a gameplan - an accurate guy who doesn't make lots of mistakes. It can work - provided that you don't turn the ball over, and that you deny the other side any big plays.
And that's where USC's proposition breaks down for me. The Trojans will have to kick it to college football's most electrifying return man. They'll have to tackle the Pac-10's most explosive back on every down. They'll have to shut down a quarterback who occasionally looks ordinary, but more often looks like a 1st round draft choice. They'll have to protect the football against a defense that has generated 25 takeaways this year. They'll have to play error-free in a secondary that features three first-year starters. No blown coverages...no fumbles...no breakdowns on punt cover...no missed tackles on #10 in space.
USC should win this game. They have the better, more efficient, more consistent team. But Cal has the constant threat of the Big Play, and that's what wins Big Games.
Cal 31 USC 28